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Unity Within Diversity?

Thursday, 18 May, 2023 - 7:52 pm

One day three men came into the presence of G-d - an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Palestinian. They all had a question for Him.


The Englishman came first and asked when the British Empire would be restored, and its flag will fly all over the globe again.

G-d answered, "In the year 2250".

The Englishman replied, "Hm... not in my lifetime".

Next, the Frenchman asked when the glory of the Napoleonic age would be restored with the French flag standing tall once again.

G-d answered, "In the year 2465".

The Frenchman replied, "Hm ... not in my lifetime".

Finally, the Palestinian asked when the entire land of Israel from sea to sea would fly the Palestinian flag.

G-d replied, "Hm... not in My Lifetime!"

In this week’s Torah portion Bamidbar, the Torah instructs each of the twelve tribes of Israel to be counted separately, to have their own designated space when the nation camps, and to carry their own flag, with a specific emblem and color, distinct from every other tribe. “The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his own camp and each man by his own flag.”

The flag of Reuven was red and carried on it a picture of mandrakes; Shimon’s flag was green and was decorated with a painting of the city of Shechem, the flag of Levi was partially black and partially red with an image of the High Priest’s breastplate. Yehuda’s flag was sky-blue with an image of a majestic lion. Issachar – bluish black, with an image of the sun and the moon; Zebulun – white, with the image of a ship; Dan – sapphire blue, with the emblem of a snake; Gad – grey, with a picture of army camps.  Naftali – burgundy, and the emblem of a deer. Asher – pearl, with the image of an olive tree. Yosef – black, with a picture of an ox and a wild ox. And lastly, Binyamin had a multicolored flag, including all the other eleven colors, and had the emblem of a wolf.

Now, there is a perplexing Midrash Rabah in this verse concerning the flags.

The Midrash says the nations of the world saw the Jews traveling through the wilderness, arranged by Tribe, and they all wondered "Who are these people who travel so beautifully with their flags?" The Nations were so impressed that they said to the Jewish people. You are so beautiful and amazing. Please join ranks with us. If you join ranks with us, we will make you our leaders, our governors, and our rulers. We are so impressed with you, let us merge. The Midrash then states that the Jewish people answered, "What can you offer us? Can you promise us anything better than that which G-d has already given us, namely this beautiful concept of traveling in formation with each tribe's own flag?"

What is the meaning of this Midrash? Why were the nations so amazed by the flags? What is so unique about a bunch of people traveling under a bunch of flags? After all, every nation has a flag. What was uniquely beautiful about the travel formations that caused the nation’s inspiration?

The answer is, there is a flag and there is a flag. Every nation can have a flag. We in the United States have the "Stars and Stripes", the British have the "Union Jack", and the French have their flag as well. The trouble is that flags come with a certain amount of Nationalism, and Nationalism comes with a certain chauvinism. Sure, the British have a flag and the French have a flag. But they got issues with each other, since time immemorial.

Yes, we have a United Nations with 192 countries, where everyone has their own flag, but how “united” are all these nations (except when it comes to condemning Israel… here they suddenly “unite”). Nationalities come with rivalries.

The Nations of the world were not amazed that each of the tribes of the Jewish people had their own flags. There is nothing special about that. What was unique was that even though there were 12 flags, representing 12 unique sets of personalities and individuals, there remained a certain unity that permeated the entire encampment in the wilderness. The Nations could have duplicated the flags. They could not duplicate the peace and unity that existed despite the flags. They could not duplicate a “flog” that comes without chauvinism.

What, in fact, was the secret of these types of flags?

The answer is a verse in Psalms chapter 20:

"May we sing for joy at Your salvation and raise our flag in the Name of our G-d". The name of G-d is the ultimate 'flag' that everyone salutes—the Flag of G-d. All twelve individual flags appreciate the fact that they are one reflection of the Divine, but the infinite G-d expresses Himself in many other ways as well. I celebrate my flag, but when I realize that my flag is part of the Divine flag, then I truly give honor to your flag as well.

The very same verse in Bamidbar, which instructs each tribe to camp in its own designated place with its own flag, states one more thing: “The children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his section, with the flags of their father's house; facing the Sanctuary all around -- shall they encamp.”

Though each family was to camp separately around its respective flag and among its own tribe, in the center of them all stood the Sanctuary, the Tabernacle constructed by all the Jewish people to serve as an abode for the Divine. All twelve tribes were positioned at an equal distance from the Sanctuary, situated around it in a sort of circle. The nucleus of the camp, its core, and foundation, was the Tabernacle of G-d, and regarding it, every tribe was perfectly equal.

G-d wants each tribe to have a different flag, to speak in its own voice, to sing its own note, to paint in its own color. If the Jewish people in all their diverse pathways have their eyes fixed at the epicenter – G-d’s Tabernacle and the Ark with the Torah contained in it – then our divergent “flags” only enrich our collective identity. Diversity within the Jewish people is not only a factor we must reluctantly accept; it is a cause for genuine celebration. It grants us the opportunity to discover the sparks of truth experienced in the heart of the other, for it is only in the face of the other that we can discover the part of G-d that we lack in our own face.

Why did G-d create multiplicity? Because the deepest unity is the unity found within diversity. If we are all the same, unity is no achievement. In origin and essence, all is one. But an even deeper unity is achieved when differentiations and demarcations are imposed upon the primordial oneness, and its component parts are each given a distinct role in the creation of symphonious expression of the singular essence of its Creator. Like notes in a ballad, each of us represents a unique and distinct note, and together we recreate the symphony, not by singing the same note, but by expressing our individual notes as an indispensable part of the song.

For the unity of humankind, we need one G-d; but for G-d's unity to be complete we need human diversity, everyone fulfilling his or her role in existence, sharing with others their unique contribution, and learning from others the wisdom they lack on their own.

As our world progresses more and more toward globalism—a global market, a global economy, global networking—it seems that tribalism is equally on the rise. Despite all our efforts to turn our world into a global village, tribal instincts remain powerful.

The flags of Bamidbar teach us that in Judaism the two are not seen as mutually exclusive. The mistake we often make is to attempt to cultivate one ideal and squash the other. The truth is however that both trends are innate to the human condition: everybody is everybody and nobody is anybody but themselves… we are one, but we are also unique. This was the secret and the uniqueness of the flags: cherish your individuality while you celebrate otherness.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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